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'Split feather' syndrome addressed at S.D. committee hearing

PIERRE, S.D. - Jennifer Mellette has some friends that were adopted to non-Indian families and her message to the South Dakota legislature is "please help my friends."

"I have a friend that didn't know what a pow wow was. It must be an awful feeling not knowing who you are," Mellette, age 15, Standing Rock Sioux said.

A bill called the South Dakota Indian Child Welfare Act is in the legislative system as an additional law that will stop the State Department of Social Services from taking American Indian children from their families and giving them to non-Indian families.

The state-tribal relations committee has heard the stories numerous times. They are the same. "We don't know where our niece or nephew is. We can't find our grandchild. DSS doesn't cooperate."

"My friends get disciplined horribly," Mellette said. She told the State-Tribal Relations Committee she saw her friend being punished, not the way youth would be punished in an American Indian home.

Jennifer Ring, executive director of the ACLU of the Dakotas, said South Dakota was one of the worst offenders of the federal Indian Child Welfare Act. Her accusation was upheld by tribal members who are desperate to find a loved one, only to be turned away.

The federal law does not have the enforcement or monitoring provisions that will hold a state accountable. A possible state ICWA law, patterned after the federal law will have clearer guidelines for the state courts to follow, supporters assert.

"For over 100 years state and federal policies have worked to assimilate our children.

"More recently, federal and state adoption and child protection policies removed as many as one in four Indian children from their homes and adopted them out to white families," the nine tribal chairman stated in a letter to Gov. Mike Rounds. The tribal leaders of the Great Plains Tribal Chairman's Association urged the governor to support the legislation.

Iowa, Minnesota and Oklahoma have adopted similar ICWA laws.

There are very few American Indian families across the country that have not been adversely affected by the removal of a child from the extended family unit, said Sandra White Hawk, director of the First Nation Orphan Association.

"There is always an extended family ready to take in a child. Removal is created by outside forces imposed on us," White Hawk said.

White Hawk was taken from her family when she was 18 months old. As an adult she finally met a man who was her brother. She said her brother always thought he had a sister. They lived in different parts of the country.

What many American Indians want the social system to understand is that the tribal ways are still important and in place. "Our systems are in place. We have come back, our family system is strong," White Hawk said. She called it the "split feather" syndrome.

Among adopted children the suicide rate is higher, and for those of American Indian heritage, the percentages go up, according to statistics from the Center for Disease Control.

"A state ICWA will make the courts and the DSS do a better job. This act will be in compliance with the federal law and it is supported by the tribal leaders," said State Sen. Mike LaPointe, R-Mission, a member of the Rosebud Nation.

Testimony from many people at committee hearings brought up the fact that seldom does the DSS contact the tribe or the extended family when a child is taken from a home or is up for adoption or placement in a foster home. DSS officials said in the past that all efforts are made to contact all family members. Tribal officials counter those claims.

One mother, not identified, said she lost her child Dante who is now 9 years old. Because of cross-cultural conflicts, she said the foster family turned her child back to the social services system. "She could not handle the child. Indian kids are cute when they are little, but when they grow up, they are given up," she said.

She added that at the time Dante was taken from her she was not notified of her rights under ICWA, in fact ICWA was not even mentioned, she said. Social Services listed no known relatives and did not notify the tribe.

The state ICWA will clear up most all of those grievances. However, it does not supersede the Safe Families Act, which is used to act in the best interest of the child and is thought by many people to override ICWA. That is not the case, attorneys argue.

A new state law would acknowledge tribal courts as courts of jurisdiction and allow for tribes, families or courts to intervene at any time during a pre-adoptive or pre-parental rights case. State social services would be required to recognize all tribal affiliations or possible affiliation.

What people want the state to understand is the fact that American Indian tribes have systems in place to take care of any child that is left without an American Indian family.

State Representative Tom Van Norman, a committee member and attorney for the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe said he was not allowed to cross examine a defendant during a custody trial to ask about the person's knowledge of American Indian culture.

"Our people have a great understanding of spirituality. It is a wholeness that goes back to creation," said Arvol Looking Horse, 19th generation keeper of the sacred White Buffalo Calf pipe.

Many people said they wanted to see an oversight committee organized as part of the bill that would keep the DSS in check as it deals with the American Indian community and ICWA.

"I want to see a law that makes DSS look at the law more seriously, so they are made to study the law," said Beverly Iron Shield, ICWA director for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

She said she had clients that admitted they messed up but with help they would try to turn their lives around. They were willing to jump through hoops to keep their children, she said. It's a matter of understanding the ways of the Lakota.

Iron Shield said the biggest problem for young mothers is they have identified of what a mother is. A mother has a specific role in life, she said, and the child is sacred. "Many don't know what they are supposed to do."

The ICWA will give the families a chance to prove they are capable of taking care of the child in a spiritual and cultural way.